directed by Jennifer Leitzes
(TriStar, 1997)

Claire and Nick are a team any police captain would be happy to have working for him. They're smart, they're quick, they're streetwise and good with guns. They anticipate each other's moves and cover one another better than most life insurance policies. The problem is, they're not cops. They're crooks.

But not big crooks, just little crooks. Or, to be more accurate, middle-management crooks.

Claire (Kyra Sedgwick) and Nick (Stanley Tucci) work for an old, established New York crime ring run by a boss known only as "The Boss" (Robbie Coltrane).

Claire is The Boss's Girl Friday. She'll do just about anything for The Boss -- anything but sleep with him, that is. That's Kitty's job. But Kitty (Robin Tunney) isn't happy with her job. So she slips a pistol to a bag man who's getting the third degree from The Boss. And when the gun goes off, so does Kitty.

That makes even more work for Claire and Nick, who are already charged with bringing in the money the bag man didn't. But missing money and molls are the least of Claire and Nick's worries in Montana. The real problem is that someone is trying to take out The Boss, and the boss thinks it's Claire.

That pits Claire against the non-Nick members of the gang in a kind of horseless High Noon, complete with a battle royale finale.

If all this sounds complicated, it is. But unlike many detective tales it's brought off in straightforward narrative and good humor, reminiscent of Get Shorty, with a jaunty musical score and a bunch of colorful hitmen who spend most of their day playing poker and arguing about who cheated.

Montana is the work of first-time director Jennifer Leitzes and first-time screenwriters Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber, who stock their potboiler with bits and pieces of nearly every quirky crime drama of the last decade, not the least of which are Fargo and Pulp Fiction. But Leitzes and the Hoebers add a few new things to the mix, including a bean-counting second banana (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who'd like to keep all The Boss's beans for himself, and a smarmy self-help author (John Ritter) with a talent for laundering money.

Ritter steals the show as Dr. Wexler, author of The Step. The Step, Wexler explains, is far superior to other self-help programs simply because it contains only one step. It's a bit of social commentary that raises Montana above a lot of shoot-em-ups, though there's still plenty of gunplay for those who like that kind of thing.

Montana is a film that grows on you. Sedgwick makes an interesting tough guy, and Tucci completes the gender reversal quietly and with wry sensitivity. In the end, you can't help but root for them, even though they're only the best of the worst.

Montana has that kind of effect on you. Fargo it's not, but it's no Godzilla either. It's a small film that makes a big impression.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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